City Council may depart cable TV Henson quadruples fee for televising Baltimore hearings

Bell calls move 'outrageous'

Panel president says housing chief, mayor seek political control

September 29, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who took over the city's cable channel, wants to charge the City Council about four times more than last year to televise its Monday night meetings and weekly hearings.

Upset at the $1,600-a-week price, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is accusing Henson and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of purposely overcharging the council to levy political control.

"The whole situation is outrageous. This is a matter of basic access and democracy," Bell said.

Henson contends the price is fair and necessary to cover production costs.

This means that today's council meeting, the first since the summer recess, may not be seen by anyone who doesn't attend. Bell hopes he can find another vendor in time to videotape today's scheduled 5 p.m. meeting.

Though viewership of the city's Cable 44 channel is small, Bell and the 18 council members regard televising meetings and nTC hearings as important to their political careers. The rebroadcasts throughout the week give the elected politicians a chance to reach residents who don't have time to attend the meetings.

Also, Bell wants to become mayor and is seeking as much exposure as possible to keep his face and political views in the forefront of voters' minds. This year, he began his own radio show on Morgan State University's station.

Bell, whose contrary relationship with Henson is legendary, dislikes having to come to Henson for approval.

Henson delights in holding the cards this time.

In February 1996, Bell tried to thwart Henson's reconfirmation as housing commissioner by calling a council vote when Henson's supporters, the majority of council members, were outside the council chambers. The vote was reversed quickly, and Bell was rebuked by Henson and the mayor for the covert tactic.

Bell now is upset that Henson apparently is allowing his production staff to videotape for free the mayor's weekly briefings for reporters. But he said he couldn't extend that deal to the council.

"We've only got so much staffing," Henson said.

When asked why the council was billed but not the mayor, the director of the cable channel, Joyce Jefferson Daniels, contradicted Henson.

"We charge everyone. Dan wasn't aware of that," Daniels said.

But Daniels couldn't produce a fee structure for charges or a record of fees assessed for services for the mayor. "If I sound vague at this point, it is because we do not have all the answers," Daniels said.

The battle over cable rights began during the city's budget-balancing war this spring. Schmoke proposed cutting the city's support of the Office of Cable and Communications to help eliminate a multimillion-dollar shortfall.

The council, in its role as budget watchdog, could not restore the funds but tried to pressure the mayor to do it himself by cutting some of the mayor's pet projects. The mayor resisted the pressure. He did not restore funds to the cable office and let the council's cuts stand. As a result, the city's ties to funding the cable station were severed.

Henson acted to transfer the cable office to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. He must make sure the channel does not become a drain on agency's budget, most of which comes from federal funds. Henson said the cable office's budget is about $500,000 a year.

Bell is seeking a deal with Henson and the mayor that could bring council meetings to the airwaves for less money.

"I will be happy to discuss a reasonable fee for costs associated with this service, but overcharging one city agency to support another is highly questionable," Bell wrote the mayor last week.

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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